Monday, March 30, 2015

The Driving Force behind an Excellent Team

Excellent teams thrive while others struggle to survive.  Some excel while others fail.  Schools provide collaborative time to all teams, and their strong teams create awesome plans for kids, while their weak teams spin their wheels getting little accomplished.  But I f you think about it, all teams have one thing in common. They discuss the following educational concepts:

  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Intervention, 
  • Extension,
  • Tech integration
  • Real world experiences

In fact, when teams are asked if they address those components as a collaborative team, a common response is "Yeah, we do that..."  So if all team "focus on learning", then why are some successful and others still struggling to make a positive impact on learning. 

It all depends on how they answer this question...

Excellent Teams Don't Do Everything

The difference between excellent teams and others is not so much about what they do as how deeply they do it and why they do it.  The  best teams don't shoot for better test scores.  Better test scores result from their continuous quest for self-improvement.  Excellent teams don't work harder; they work smarter.  They don't do everything right; they do the most critical things right.  These teams don't hyper-focus on the causes of failure; they focus on learning from failure and transforming it into progress.

The whole point of having a team is helping every player become a winner.  When teams consist of individuals who are collectively committed to getting better for all kids, everyone gets better (kids too).  Their checklists become smaller because things are put in perspective.  In fact, great teams prioritize their collective work into 3 basic categories:
  • Critical Team Actions
  • Secondary Team Actions
  • "If we have time" Actions
When teams are able to prioritize and then commit to the actions that are most essential to their work at getting better for all kids, there is a strong likelihood that student improvement begins.  When the focus on learning starts with the adults in building learning how to improve at their own effectiveness, the focus on student learning actually transforms from a buzzword into a reality.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Dropouts

In my history as a teacher, principal and now curriculum director, I have come across many students who were unsuccessful on standardized tests. Those students received additional time and support from outstanding teachers, but they continued to be unsuccessful on standardized tests. In Texas, standardized tests are pretty important, as you can't graduate from high school unless you're successful on standardized tests.  That's why I'm sad to say that I have seen many students become dropouts simply because they could not pass a standardized test.

Today I'd like to tell you about two students that I worked closely with in my career, Adriana and Joseph (not their real names but they are real students). Joseph was a student from a two-parent middle class family with lots of support to get through life, however Joseph did not graduate from high school. It wasn't because of his failure to pass classes, which were a challenge.  It wasn't because Joseph was a lazy or apathetic kid.  Joseph failed to graduate because he failed to pass 1 of the 4 standardized tests. 

Adriana was a great student in middle school and high school, yet she was never able to pass a standardized test. She had language issues, and learning academics was a challenge for her.  Unlike Joseph, Adriana came from a single-parent home where her mother did not speak English. She was on free lunch, and she had to be home every day to take care of her brothers and sisters while her mother worked her second job.  While her background was completely different from Joseph, her high school result was exactly the same. She failed to graduate from high school because she failed to pass two of four standardized tests. 

Two Dropouts - Two Different Results

While these two students failed to graduate, what happened after that is the real difference.  Joseph's parents poured lots of resources and support into his education that helped him earn his GED,  Additionally, Joseph's parents enrolled him into a technical school where he earned his degree as a welder, where he now has a welding job making good money.

For Adrianna the result wasn't quite the same.  I saw Adrianna this morning at a fast food restaurant where she served me my breakfast.  When I asked her about school, she told me she was not in school because she didn't have time to go get her GED.  In short she didn't have the external resources to recover from her failure to graduate like Joseph did, and in her 20's, the chance of her going back to school decreases every day.

How do we Eradicate Poverty?

Socioeconomic status plays and has always played a massive role in education, but it has an even bigger impact on a dropout's efforts to recover from the devastating failure of not earning a diploma.  At its core, a complete public education is the difference between poverty and avoiding it. 
  Educators and legislators must work together to generate many options for students to demonstrate their readiness to graduate from high school and preparation for college and career. Not every student will be successful on a standardized test; therefore, they must have other options to demonstrate college and career readiness. 

The great news is that there is legislation in Texas right now to help students that struggle with standardized tests. Senate Bill 149 is under discussion right now, and it would allow schools greater flexibility in helping students demonstrate that mastery.    My hope is that legislators will continue to listen to educators.   They must understand that students of poverty will not return to get their diploma once that opportunity has been missed.

All students are influenced by their environment, and students of poverty who fail to graduate have a greater chance of being influenced by their environment to never return to school.  Once that decision has been made, a dropout will have a better chance of falling into the pipeline to imprisonment than earning a diploma.  We will never be able to reduce poverty with legislation.  The only way that we will ever eradicate the cycle of poverty is to educate our way out of it.  Legislators must pass legislation that gives schools greater flexibility to help all students earn a diploma that will serve as a springboard into a college and career future. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Celebration: The Accelerator of Learning

Celebration is the fuel in your school, and the more fuel that you have, the further your organization can go. If you think about school improvement, it is a big bus on a long journey, and if we never stop by the gas station to fill up, the bus won't get that far.  Teachers and students need to be motivated to accelerate in their growth, and that can only happen when we remember to celebrate continuously. 

In this post, I will share my ideas on how we leaders must praise what we preach, promote our values, and acknowledge effort and commitment to learning. Whether it is a student who just passed a big test, or the secretary who makes everybody's job easier, school improvement will only accelerate when we celebrate. 

14 Ways to Accelerate Learning through Celebration.  

Virtual Celebrations

Instagram - Benjamin Gilpin has one of the best Instagram accounts for celebration. Every day he is sharing pics of how fun his school is and how much the kids are learning. 

Twitter - My school district's Twitter account (@tatumisd) is constantly celebrating students and staff accomplishments that are academic or athletic.  Our district and campus leaders are celebrating any event where our kids are growing or our staff are going above and beyond. 

Blog - Every week in my school blog, I make sure that I celebrate our staff and students with pictures and stories of our great educators who are making great and innovative things happen in the classroom. 

Face to Face Celebrations

Now virtual celebrations are great and everybody in your community can see them instantly, but people also need to feel appreciation through face to face contact.  Here are some ideas. 

Handshake & a Smile
Nothing is more meaningful and more personal than looking someone in the eyes, shaking their hand and thanking them for the great things that they're doing.  Make a point to do this every week.

Handwritten Note
The art of writing a handwritten note is becoming a lost art form. That is why it is a great tool to celebrate hardworking people. Receiving a handwritten note of appreciation fills the soul. 

Sonic Drink
Surprising your staff  individually or collectively with a drink from Sonic or your favorite fast food restaurant is a great way to celebrate. To expedite the process, you send out a Google form to get everyone's order and then you can turn the responses into individual stickers via a mail merge.   This helps you get the order fast and helps the restaurant get everyone's orders correct.

Google Form Questions

  • Name
  • Drink Order
  • Room Number (helpful for large faculties)

Group Celebrations

If you don't have the time, and you want to celebrate the work of the entire school, group celebrations are a must. 

Staff Incentives 

Celebration Room 
Todd Nesloney shared a post about his celebration room at his school. (Click here). He has a dedicated space where every person can be recognized and encouraged by every person in the school.

After School Party
At your next faculty meeting, surprise your staff with a faculty party. You can still have the meeting but having a party will make a huge difference. 

Random Jeans Day
This is a huge deal in many schools. Given at just the right time when they least expect it will put a pep in their step.   Given too much, it will lose its effectiveness.

Student Incentives

Celebration is best for kids when it is earned. As a teacher or principal, students need is to set goals for them and provide a celebration for when they reach the goal. Here are a few examples that you can use. 

Dance Party
This is a great way to celebrate elementary to middle school age kids who have displayed excellent behavior or hard work in learning for a month or 6 week grading period. Set a goal, and the kids look forward to the punching their ticket to dance party when properly promoted. 

Dodgeball with the Principal
What kid (elementary to high school) doesn't want to pelt the principal with a dodgeball?  So use great behavior or academics as the goal to play with the principal.  If you don't like dodgeball, kickball works just as effectively.

Surprise Bell  
To celebrate good attendance at the elementary and middle school, I had a surprise bell incentive and the kids never knew when it was coming. The bell would ring and we would check attendance. The classes with the best attendance for the day received treats, extra recess or some other incentive.  Celebrate attendance.  After all, it will motivate them to make being at school a priority.

Extra Minute in Passing Period
To promote school-wide attendance at the high school, I had a standing daily goal of 98% daily attendance. For any day that the goal was reached, students had an extra minute added to their passing periods on the next day.

Teacher Developed Class Incentives
In a school where teachers are creating celebrations for student learning, kids are super focused.  When teachers want to create an incentive for their class, encourage and support it.  It will accelerate the learning in that classroom.

What gets Celebrated gets Accelerated

Nothing gets people more involved and engaged in working and learning than acknowledgement and appreciation. Celebration is the best way to acknowledge hardwork and show appreciation for a job well done. Some detractors would say, "well they should do a good job because they're expected to."  That is true; however, how much better would kids and adults do if they worked in a culture that honors achievement and celebrates success at the organizational level all the way down to the individual level?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why the A-F Rating System will Fail Texas Kids

The A-F grading discussion is moving full steam ahead in the Texas Senate, and it looks like the leaders in the Senate are committed to adopting a flawed accountability system.  What I hope to communicate in this post are some questions that all educators, parents and communities should ask the legislators who we elected to improve schools.  After reading all of the proposed changes, the thought that continues to come to my mind is this.

I just don't get it.

Question 'A'

Why are You Tying Accountability to a Test that You don't Believe In?

Standardized testing has run its course, or at least that's what many legislators touted when running for office.  It is widely believed that standardized testing is flawed, and that there is too much emphasis on one single test.  Lt. Governor, Dan Patrick was quoted in the Dallas Morning News (Click Here) this past October saying,

“I’m getting to the point where I’m losing total confidence in our state testing because we’re getting students with A’s and B’s … who can’t pass the Algebra 1 test, for example.”   

An additional point in the same article was shared by our new governor, Greg Abbott, when he was running for office.   His quote on testing as a valid measure for learning was as follows.

 “I think it’s fair to say the whole process needs to be re-evaluated,” he said. “We may have a broken thermometer, the STAAR test, that is no longer doing a good job of measuring.”  

If this is the prevailing rhetoric in Austin, then I don't understand why you would want an accountability system that labels and furthermore punishes schools for failing to perform on a test (STAAR) that everyone including the top 2 leaders in the state are sick of.

In fact, over 10,000 seniors may not graduate this year because they haven't passed 1 or more STAAR End of Course tests required for graduation.  To fix this problem, Senate Bill 149 (a good thing) is on the floor right now to allow schools to give students multiple ways to demonstrate that they have met the necessary criteria to graduate.  While this bill is a victory for kids as well as schools, the bill is essentially affirming that it is wrong to use a flawed test to base major decisions about a school's performance.

Question 'B'

Are you Leading Texas or Following other States?

With so much at stake and so many people calling for an overhaul of the Texas accountability system, why are you looking to imitate several states who have tried and failed at implementing an A-F school rating system?  There is much evidence that shows that several states have failed at providing clarity about school performance using an A-F rating system.  (If there is a state that has successfully helped all schools improve and more kids graduate using an A-F rating system, please tell me where that state is because I honestly can't find one.)

If you want to know the results that will come from labeling schools on an A-F scale, please see Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oklahoma again, and Florida.  From what I have found, I only see frustration and confusion coming from a system that you say is intended to be less confusing.  The article that concerned me the most was "More Schools Received an F than Last Year".

I know that schools in other states are doing a great job educating kids because I believe schools, teachers and leaders in those states are working hard to educate kids.  In fact, the new Oklahoma state superintendent believes this also, as she has suspended the A-F rating system until 2016 while the "flaws" in the system are being worked out.   After reading the articles, I just don't see how labeling more schools with an 'F' each year is going to build people's confidence in schools.

Next, why are you so committed to over-evaluating all campuses on an A-F system when you haven't even proven that evaluating our districts using the A-F system is effective?  We heard legislators politicize that they disagree with over-testing, bureaucratic redtape and over-regulation by the federal government, yet you are designing a testing and accountability system that exceeds what our federal government is doing.

Our current state testing and accountability system:

  • Has more total indicators to gauge school performance than the federal government,
  • Has 4 Indexes (Indices) that measure one test in four different ways,
  • Ties graduation directly to passing all 5 STAAR EOC tests (unless SB 149 passes),
  • Requires more standardized tests (grades 3-12) to be given ) than the federal government (7 more tests.
The sad truth is this.  An A-F system is nothing more than a flashback to our former accountability system under TAKS (2002-2011) where schools were labeled as Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable and Unacceptable, and these labels were based predominantly on one measure (standardized tests).  This old system was so antiquated and so negatively opposed by virtually everyone in the state that it was done away with.  I just don't see how returning to a failed system from last decade is going to help all schools guarantee learning for all kids in this decade.

Question 'C' 

Can We please have a New Vision for Accountability?

You can weigh yourself as much as you want, but there are a lot of other ways to determine if you are in good health.  Your weight is just one factor. The same is true of gauging the health of schools.  Keeping that in mind, please take a look at the TASA Visioning Document which was created by a group of highly insightful and committed Texas superintendents and education leaders.  I would encourage you to look at Article IV on page 24 which deals exclusively with accountability.  I really think they hit the nail on the head when they defined meaningful accountability in this way.

  • Accountability systems are guided by the fact that to attach any matter highly valued by students, teachers, school leaders, or schools/districts to any single measure such as a standardized test, corrupts the test and the integrity of what it measures as well as the accountability it was intended to provide.

  • Labels for schools and particularly those that use the lowest performing unit as the basis for a punitive label should be avoided. There is a distinction between identifying performance gaps and labeling. Identification of performance gaps enables schools to move forward in designing different instructional strategies or approaches to help students achieve the learning desired.
Can you please get input from leaders of school districts who live to make a difference in the lives of kids?  I am confident that you will get a much better accountability system that will truly tell you and more importantly parents how schools are really performing.

Question 'D'

Do Schools Need More Pressure?

The rhetoric implicates that schools are not improving fast enough; therefore, they need more pressure and shorter timelines to demonstrate improvement on a test that has basically flatlined in performance for the last 3 years.  I don't know what schools you have visited, but I don't know of a school in Texas that has too little pressure placed upon it.  By trying to meet the passing requirements, exceeding the growth measures and competing in their campus comparison groups, Texas schools, leaders, teachers and students are under more pressure to improve than I have ever seen in my career.  I agree that all schools must be committed to guaranteeing learning for all kids.  I just don't get how more pressure to avoid punitive measures will get the job done.

Question 'F'

Are Schools Doing a Good Job?

I, like thousands of Americans, believe we must continue to strive for academic excellence, and I believe that until every student is equipped with an education that successfully prepares them for college and career, we must continue to improve.  I think it is important to point out that Texas has some great things happening and some areas where we must improve.  Here are a few facts that I pulled from TAPR state reports from 2014, the TEA website and ACT website.
  • Texas had the 2nd highest graduation rate in the nation this year at 88%.  It is higher than the national average by 7%.  That was done without an A-F rating system.
  • ACT Participation and Performance rates are the highest in the last 5 years. (see page 7)  All  subgroups have also increased in participation and performance over the last 5 years.  While the growth is small in performance, participation has grown tremendously.
  • 57% of Texas high school graduates enrolled in an IHE (Institution of Higher Education) last year.   
  • 70% of Texas graduates enrolled in an IHE successfully completed the first year of college without remediation.
  • 31% of Texas high school students took and passed college courses as high school students (dual credit) in 2012.  This number is increasing every year due to House Bill 5.  In other words, 1/3 of Texas high school kids earned college credit before they graduated from high school.
  • 22% of Texas students took AP tests in 2012 and half of them earned college credit. (That's even more college credit earned by high school students)
  • College and technical school enrollment has increased steadily over the last 3 years.
While Texas needs to improve in ACT and SAT performance, as well as college enrollment, more students are being prepared for college every year.  Of course, some kids need remediation when they get there, but more kids are getting there, and that's a good thing.  We have room to grow, but we are also growing.

Texas Schools are Improving

I don't know about you, but I think all Texas schools are making improvements.  I'm not basing this solely on test scores because a school's story is told by more factors than what you find on a test score.   A school's story includes what they are doing in the areas of college preparation, career and technical education, fine arts, UIL academics, athletics, and other innovative programs that will never be included in an A-F rating system.  

Are some schools failing?  Yes, and there should be plans for them to respond quickly and efficiently.  Are some schools excelling?  Yes, and there should be a culture where exceptional schools share their successful strategies to help neighboring schools improve.  An A-F rating system that creates winners and losers will do nothing but recreate a culture of competition between campuses instead of uniting districts in the spirit of collaboration and most importantly educating all kids.   Texas is better than that, and if we believe we're in the business of helping all kids improve and succeed, then we should have legislation that helps all schools improve and succeed as well.

Share your thoughts, and if you believe in your school,  share this with a friend.

Better yet, call your senator and representative and tell them that Texas schools and kids deserve something better than an A-F accountability system. 

 Here's a link to their directory

Friday, March 6, 2015

10 Tips to Fire your Kids Up for #MarchMotivation

It's March, and the kids are ready for spring break, but when they come back, will they be reinvigorated about school?  Will they be fired up for learning your content?  Will they be running into the building or counting down the minutes until they can run back out of it?  Well, that depends on the excitement that each one of us brings to the table.  

Springtime is about new growth.  It is about change and rebirth.  We mustn't forget that our students get excited for learning when our lessons bring changes that engage as well as motivate.  This month, I want to challenge you to bring #MarchMotivation into your classroom.  All it is is a motivational tool to bring excitement for learning into the classroom.  It's a theme to inspire kids to give their best every day.

10 Tips for #MarchMotivation

  1. Review your expectations for behavior and learning.  Students need a refresher on this when they return from any break, especially spring break.  Be sure to address behaviors that have been lacking in the past month.
  2. Set an academic goal for the next month.  It may be for standardized testing or raising your score on the next test or performing well at the next big competition.  When students are presented with a goal for learning, they are more inclined to meet the goal.
  3. Start a Countdown - How many school days do we have to reach our academic goal, or how many days do we have to get ready for the big test?  Post a countdown on the board, and build excitement about the fact that the kids are going to prove to the world how awesome they are academically.
  4. Have an academic competition where students or groups can compete for the most growth in the next month.
  5. Incorporate a reward or privilege system for overachievement.  Students will surpass expectations if they know there's something in it for them.
  6. Tweet / Instagram or Facebook Awesomeness - Most students get pretty jazzed when they make it into your social media space.  When they amaze you, tweet it out.
  7. Positive Parent Contact - Parents will join into your #MarchMotivation if you call them to report that their kid did a fantastic job in class for the day.
  8. Race to 100 (Click Here) - A tool to challenge and reward students and the class for exhibiting outstanding learning behaviors.
  9. Multiplication Rock Star Competition (Click Here) - A fun game to accelerate memorization of math facts.  This can be easily adapted to any concept that you want students to develop automaticity.
  10. iMovie Motivation (Click Here) - Use iMovie to make 50 second videos of the awesome learning & awesome kids in your classroom and share it via social media.

March is here, and the kids are ready for summer.  Don't miss your opportunity to motivate and inspire your students to maximize their learning.  The excitement that you build for learning could, at the most, change a student's life, and at the least, give all of them a spring that they will never forget.